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Horizontal Inequality: two types of trap

maggio 18, 2011

Horizontal Inequality: two types of trap

(Steward, F. – 2009 – Journal of Human Development and Capabilities)


This document aims to analyze inequalities between groups of individuals in a range of “capabilities” (horizontal inequality) is not focusing instead on vertical inequality, namely those between individuals in the income or consumption. It wants to explain why these inequalities persist over time investigating the multi-dimensionality within the capabilities and identifying two “inequality traps”.

The Horizontal Inequalities (HIs) are those between culturally defined groups, such as characterized by race, religion, place of birth, behavior, appearance, etc.. The group membership is important because it allows the identification of an individual now in society and determine their behavior and is significant for the life chances and well-being of that person. The group boundaries are not immutable, innate and strictly defined as an individual can be member of multiple groups (or add, the desire for change), but in reality many are easily identifiable because of the stability and persistence of the distinctions between the groups. As in the case of blacks in the United Kingdom today, feel that being black as a significant cause of frequent discrimination and barriers with respect to so-called whites. It’s important, addition to the individual condition, the situation of their group because this affects the well-being and identity of the person, who may feel trapped in a position of poverty if your group” is not doing well”, or even worse may, despite his efforts, be dragged down with the group.

The HI is here, also considered for instrumental reasons, such as the attainment of economic efficiency must be ensured that they are not denied equal opportunities to significant segments of society and at the same time there should be no injustice of any kind ,because they are also the cause of strong differences. The most critical reason to try to reduce such inequalities group is preventing the outbreak of violent conflict that would lead to further deprivation thereby aggravating already dire situation.

In the analysis of HIs is useful to define them in terms of “capability” because these are considered the best measure to assess and compare the successes and failures of human conditions, as well as Sen argues, referring to vertical inequality. It is, however, necessary to consider the                “multi-dimensionality” of capability that must be seen outside of a purely individualistic, because many of them can be considered only in reference to the group, as it concerns the characteristics of the whole rather than individual, such as the respect and recognition of cultural status.

In summary, HIs, can be classified into four dimensions of capability: political status, economic, social and cultural.

The HIs are a particular problem because they are characterized by the persistence over time and therefore has repercussions on future generations, thereby reinforcing their presence, and will be increasingly difficult to eliminate. Where there is a persistent group inequality, even if individuals can move up in income distribution, the deprived group as a whole cannot, so the ability to mobilize is less of a member of a poorest group compared to that of a richer group. Thus, the persistence of HI has a greater negative impact on the current generation, compared to the persistence of vertical inequality, not based on the group, because it is more difficult in the first case, for individuals and their children escape from the lower end of income.

Another element that proves the strong tendency to persistence of HI is the intergenerational transmission of income and education, which leads to the observation that within a group of people leaving deprived, a high number is likely to be deprived in future generations, so that the inequality of the group remains.

Many studies have shown that there is considerable intergenerational transmission of education and that education of a child is significantly related to that of their parents. Of course, inequality in education is only one of the factors that determine the economic inequalities that are the most frequent to be handed down.

Disparities in the capabilities of the group exist and persist for two main reasons: the first refers to the general poverty traps in a homogeneous population and the second, to group membership per se.

– With regard to general poverty traps, these are caused by the interrelations between different “capabilities” and access and return of different types of capital.


These interactions through the generations cause poverty traps: adults with low capabilities in health, nutrition and education, usually have low earnings, so it is likely that their children, in turn, will have the same poor “capabilities” as those on low incomes do not allow the family to cater adequately for the health and nutrition of children. In addition, following the intergenerational transmission of education, including education for children will be relatively low. These families, with low education and low standard of living, tend to be numerous and this too leads to a low level of all the capabilities in the coming generations. Then we go there is a strong probability that a family is born poor will remain so for the future.




Family income can be seen as the result of access of households to a variety of types of capital (human, physical, social and cultural) and returns to the capital. The scarcity of human capital (education, health, nutrition) is, as already mentioned, the source of low incomes, but also to affect them is the possibility / denial of access to other types of capital: physical capital (land, machinery and economic infrastructure), cultural capital (attitudes and goals) and social capital (trust, networks and contacts).

Poor households have limited access to each of these types of capital: thus, they often live in poor areas, give less value to education and social mobility, and have social contacts with people of low economic position. The returns of the capital held by people, not only depend on having available to that particular type of capital, but also the availability of other goods, so for example, education will produce more income, if there are good schools, if children are encouraged to attend school and if people have good contacts to find work.

We can thus confirm that the interactions between capital and returns are a major cause of that vicious cycle that traps the poor in a poverty trap at some point in their lives, as capital markets are not perfect, but biased towards those who have few assets. If we had the assumption of perfect markets (such as the neoclassical model assumes), then a solution to escape from poverty, would be to apply for a loan, but unfortunately not as simple as: certain types of capital cannot be purchased with loans (eg, cultural facilities) and also to the poor does not seem a good idea to borrow money, because you do not bee to receive high returns from any kind of capital.



The inequality traps are essentially of two types interconnected; the capabilities trap that leading to a low human capital, and probably at a low cultural and social capital, and the trap of the assets that consolidates the situation of low income and generally poor capabilities.

–   As for the traps related to membership of a specific group, explaining the HI and their persistence over individual inequality, we can group them into four factors:

  • Asymmetries in social capital. As defined by Blau,that draws on reality, the groups have more contacts within them than between them, so that the nature of social capital depends on the group membership. If you add the HI then the poorest groups have more contact with poor people and richer groups with rich people, which explains the asymmetries of social capital.
  • Asymmetries in cultural capital (attitude).The attitude towards education, economic activities and so on, tends to be heavily influenced by the group and may differ between groups. There is some evidence to suggest that the differences in attitudes are important in some contexts, sometimes negatively, sometimes positively. For example, Muslims in India, give low priority to education because they think that this will not give them good returns; in contrast, Asians in the United States recovered their position, thanks to the dynamic attitudes towards education and employment.
  • Discrimination. Is understood as discrimination in admitting to education, treatment in schools and in work, and in accessing the legal system. There are implied but intentional forms of discrimination and other implicit and unintended; in my opinion an example of intentional discrimination is localized, in which the public administration, where there are more degraded areas, do not make proper efforts to make effective improvements.
  • Political inequalities. They are important because the political system can banish sources of inequality and take other action to correct these no differences, or even can strengthen the disadvantages.


The document shows some evidence on the relations underlying the two traps (inequality between capabilities and gaps in the capital), but it is good to point out that this evidence is not conclusive, but indicative, because it is incomplete.

With regard to the capability that we see, in particular female education, improve health and nutrition of children, reduces fertility and family size, leading to improved nutrition and education of a smaller number of children. The improvement of health has been shown to have a positive impact on educational attainment of children and on the productivity and earnings of the family. The improvement of education raises the value of workers and consequently earnings, and ultimately this help to improve, in turn, nutrition and education, as richer parents provide more food and of good quality and are more likely to send their children to school.

About inequalities in the capital, some studies have shown that deprived groups, generally, have less types of capital respect to privileged ones; because the deprivation tends to be strengthened and multidimensional, the dearth of a number of assets is sufficient by itself explain the persistent inequality, because low-current assets limit current income, so the storage capacity.

We should note, however, that there are some disadvantaged groups initially were able to reduce, and even eliminate, the His.One example is that of Asian immigrants in the USA, which reached a fairly high level of education and had high expectations for the future of their children. That is, had a rich human and cultural capital, even though they had few financial assets and limited networks in the USA. Asians, over the years, have achieved excellent performance in education, surpassing those of whites and some Asian groups have also surpassed whites in terms of earnings, while others are still lagging behind, thus strengthening the argument that are the multiple deprivations that hold back some groups.

The persistence of inequalities suggests that they are not easy to fight without the support of special operations. The multiple deprivations prevent poor groups to exploit the opportunities offered by the market, so requires that state action is to alleviate the deprivations with the elimination of differences in work, education and so on. But the legacy of this discrimination of the past is heavy and so you need to do much more in favor of deprived groups, take rather than focusing only on the objective of equal opportunities.

To be truly effective, policies must address all the most important inequalities and do more to reverse differences in social or cultural capital.

Although policies are committed to the elimination of differences, they remain unfortunately, because it is difficult, (I would add almost impossible) remove the injury of the people towards the poorest groups and / or different; for example, the state action may “require” integration, but cannot prevent people to choose with whom to interact.



The persistence of group inequalities, in conclusion, can be attributed to a strong complementarity between capital and capabilities. Group inequality is more persistent and therefore more difficult to deal than the individual inequality, because of certain group characteristics (asymmetry in the social and cultural capital, discrimination). Are needed global policies that go beyond the equal opportunities and promote some minorities legally handicapped by culturally based preconceptions. The existence of inequalities in social and cultural capital, which cannot be eliminated from politics, offer a justification for strong affirmative action, so that you can create the means to provide access of excluded groups, into the labor market and in educational institutions.

Cecilia Guidoni

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